Thursday, February 16, 2017

Fiction Review: All the Light We Cannot See

After winning the Pulitzer Prize, being a finalist for the National Book Award, and being on pretty much every top 10 list in 2014, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr was definitely on my own must-read list. My husband even gave it to me for Christmas last year. I finally found the time to read this hefty World War II novel and discovered what earned it so much praise.

Although this is a novel about WWII, it centers on children, one in France and one in Germany, who spend their childhoods and adolescence in wartime, each involved in the war in very different ways. Marie-Laure lives with her beloved Papa in Paris, where he works at the natural history museum, a place that they both love. When she is just six years old, Marie-Laure goes blind. Her father works hard to teach her how to find her way around their part of the city and learn to be independent. He even creates a scale-model of their neighborhood, detailing every curb, doorway, and step to help his daughter quite literally learn every inch of the area.

Meanwhile, in a rural mining town in Germany, Werner, and his little sister, Jutta, live in an orphanage, presided over by a caring though overworked woman. Werner becomes very adept, at a young age, at fixing and even building radios. Fascinated by these new devices, Werner has a unique talent with them, and he and Jutta secretly listen at night to broadcasts from all over the region, including their favorite, a children’s program about science coming all the way from France.

The coming war soon intrudes on both children’s lives. In France, the Nazis invade and occupy Paris. Along with many thousands of other citizens, Marie-Laure and her father set off on foot to leave the city and its dangers. Papa is carrying a famous, enormous diamond – one of five that may or may not be the real thing – in order to keep the invading Nazis from the museum’s greatest treasure. They head toward Saint-Malo, a walled city by the sea where Marie-Laure’s great-uncle lives a reclusive life in a tall house. They are welcomed by this distant relative and settle into the big house, though eventually, the war comes to them, even in Saint-Malo.

Back in Germany, an officer recognizes Werner’s unique talents when he fixes his radio and recommends him for an elite academy for Hitler Youth. Although Werner does have opportunities there to work on even more advanced technologies, he is frightened and appalled by the violence and brutality among both the officers and the children. Eventually, he is conscripted – at an early age – into the armed forces officially, to use his radio skills to find members of the resistance.

This is an epic novel, covering the years from 1934 through the end of the war, and even forward as far as 2014. The focus is on these two children – in different countries – who have never met each other, yet whose lives are both touched in different ways by the war and its brutality. Marie-Laure’s and Werner’s stories eventually converge, in unexpected ways.

This intertwining of two disparate stories is compelling (and something I love in a novel), but the reason for all the awards and recognition is Doerr’s writing. Each scene is depicted in intricate detail so that both Werner and Marie-Laure come to life on the pages. The places where they each live and travel also come to life, especially the walled city of Saint-Malo, a place so unique and fascinating that I searched for photos online after I read the book and now want to travel there to see it for myself.

The walled city of Saint-Malo in France
I came to care deeply for Werner and Marie-Laure (and their loved ones) while reading this book and was both anxiously anticipating and dreading how it would end (it is, after all, a war story). I have mentioned that I have sort of overdosed on WWII novels lately, and the last two I read – this one and The Nightingale – were both set at least partly in occupied France and were both lengthy books. So, I did feel this one ran a bit long, but I think that is just my own bias due to reading too many similar novels recently. All the Light We Cannot See is an engrossing novel that transports you into the lives of these two children, growing up during a horrific time in history. It is not just about the tragedies of war but also about the strength and resilience of the human spirit, even (especially?) in children.

530 pages, Scribner


  1. Such a great review, thank you. This book has been hanging over me for ages. I tried to read it twice, but only got 10 pages in and walked away because I think I was in a YA mood. I really MUST pick it up again!

    1. Yeah, similar for me, Helen - it sat on my shelf for over a year!

      But, despite its length, it is a very compelling story and the pace moves quickly. With the narrative moving back and forth between the two children (and the very beginning, what you read, is more of a prologue), it takes a little bit to get into the story, but once you get to know the main characters a bit, you are hooked!

  2. Kbeitz11:54 PM

    I read and adored the book in 2016, which prompted a two day stay in Saint-Malo while in France in 2017, an experience I’ll never forget! I’ve been waiting for so long for this film to be made. It appears that it will hold true to the beautifully written novel. Great review

    1. Wow!! That must have been an incredible experience! I visited Mt. St. Michel in France but would love to see Saint-Malo. Looks like the TV series begins November 2 - I can't wait!!